In a pre-release mini documentary chronicling Bowerbirds' third album, The Clearing, Philip Moore (vocals, guitar) and Beth Tacular (accordion, vocals) dub the period before the making of the album as their "disaster chapter." Over the course of a year, the pair's dog broke her pelvis, they experienced various health problems and near-death accidents, and Moore wrestled with the idea of being single while touring with his ex.
All of that chaos of falling out and back into love, left the Bowerbirds tandem and third member/production assistant/violinist Mark Paulson at a serious crossroads. The resulting eleven tracks aren't nearly as elegiac as one would expect, though. Thankfully, this more rock-oriented song suite points in an exciting and variegated direction for the Earth-loving indie-folk trio.
The shift towards a fuller production may have come from the environs in which these songs were committed to tape. The threesome recorded partly in a North Carolina cabin as well as in Bon Iver's Wisconsin studio. Bon Iver, Bon Iver's neu-folk trappings rub off in fits and starts during the album's sluggish back-half. Moore's rock songs with his old band Ticonderoga prove to be a better inspiration. Electric guitars propel some of The Clearing's best tracks.
Those transcendent rock moments are smartly placed at the beginning of the album, giving new meaning to the nature-y album title. The band is clearing the decks with this release and if they had continued this train of thought, The Clearing would be an outright success.
The recharge in appreciation for Bowerbirds is patalbible while listening to the growling folk-rock storm, "Tuck the Darkness In." Whereas 2009's ephemeral Upper Air proved to be too analogous in tone and scope to 2007's Hymns for a Dark Horse, Bowerbirds consciously set their minds towards dashing any remaining hippie-folk criticisms levied at them.
There's little of Tacular's fecund and swaying accordion lines on this cut. The foreboding melody wanders through atypical Bowerbirds field during the song's first half before the tumultuous strings and guitars begin to appear on the horizon. That first guitar blast at around the 3:20 mark is truly justified. Bowerbirds should go dark more often.
The disquieting lyrics and musical themes on that jaw-dropping opener flow right into "In the Yard." Tacular takes the mic this time and details a mossy dream about building a cabin in the woods with Moore. She sings with a dazed tone reminiscent of Portland folk queen Laura Veirs and the lyrics are still a little on the hippie side: "It may not be a grand parade of snow capped peaks/ no river silver-backed crashing through/ but we have our black-haired babes running free through the woods."
The difference is that you don't have to jump through as many hoops to grasp the band's internal logic here. The quieter "Walk the Furrows" sounds like an unearthed track from the Hymns for a Dark Horse sessions. The production is sparse and rough-hewn. Much of the Piano-led "Stitch the Hem" has breezy oohs pushing it along and "This Year" chronicles the band's trying times with an electric guitar squall that raises the hackles and gets the foot stomping fairly hard.
The Clearing's experiments go further down the rabbit hole on "Brave World." Bits of electronic ambience widen the drama of the strings and echo-chamber guitars. It largely works and nicely expands Bowerbirds' sound. A fourth album could go in any number of directions.
Closer "Now We Hurry On" is a Frankenstein's monster that totters forward under the weight of most of these styles. It shows that Bowerbirds possess the capacity to expand upon their sound. On their fourth album they'll hopefully be free to pursue more of their darker impulses and stick with one style. Rock tropes work well for them. They shouldn't be afraid to embrace that in perpetuity.
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